Surreptitious techniques pioneered in Moscow and Beijing to use the internet to drown out dissent and undermine free elections broke into view during the 2016 presidential campaign in the United States. But Russian efforts to influence the American election are part of a larger, profound challenge to democracy worldwide. Online manipulation tactics played an important role in at least 17 other elections over the past year. From the Philippines and Ecuador to Turkey and Kenya, governing parties used paid commentators, trolls, bots, false news sites and propaganda outlets to inflate their popular support and essentially endorse themselves. In the Philippines, members of a “keyboard army” said they could earn $10 a day operating social media accounts that supported Rodrigo Duterte or attacked his detractors in the run-up to his May 2016 election as president. Many of those social media fabricators have remained active under his administration, amplifying the impression of widespread support for his brutal crackdown on the drug trade.
During the 2017 election season in Kenya, political camps set up teams of paid bloggers, social media influencers and bots to shape public opinion online. Overt disinformation, propaganda and hate speech targeted individuals and organizations affiliated with the opposite political camp via Twitter hashtags, Google Ads and Facebook sponsored posts.
In the lead-up to presidential elections in Ecuador, social media accounts belonging to politicians, journalists and opposition activists were hijacked and used to disseminate messages against the opposition’s vice-presidential candidate.
Efforts by government authorities to shape and control online discussions go well beyond elections and have grown each year since Freedom House began tracking the problem in 2009. When it examined internet freedom in 65 countries in 2016 and 2017 (representing 87 percent of global internet users), its Freedom on the Net project found governments in nearly half of the nations deploying some form of manipulation to distort online information to stay in power and undermine the opposition.